Getting Down to Business
in 2010 Race for Governor
Congressman Pete Hoekstra plans to bring common-sense,
CEO sensibility to top post
by Susan J. Demas
November 16, 2009
When U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flicked off the lights in Congress last summer instead of taking up the GOP’s offshore drilling legislation, a Twitter star was born.
Pete Hoekstra, the Republican congressman from Holland best known as the party’s point man on counterterrorism, might have seemed an unlikely tweeter. But the former furniture executive also is known for his brevity, so the 140-character-or-less format proved a good fit. And while Hoekstra was huddled in the darkened chambers with GOP lawmakers, including Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Brighton), he kept the outside world abreast of their “Drill, baby, drill” protest.
“We found it to be an effective way to communicate,” smiles Hoekstra, who’s running for governor next year.
Since July 2008 he’s averaged more than one tweet a day, with 8,704 (and counting) followers. While that doesn’t begin to approach the territory of Twitter top dog/actor Ashton Kutcher (3,978,133 followers) or congressional king John McCain (1,576,416), Hoekstra’s missives certainly have courted more controversy.
On his 11th trip to Iraq, in February, he tweeted details from the itinerary, such as being in the green zone in Baghdad, which Democrats claimed revealed classified information and jeopardized members’ safety. The flap caused the Pentagon to announce it will review congressional communications from war zones.
“There’s been a lot of national attention based on [Hoekstra’s] gaffes and outrageous leaks,” says Alec Gerlach, Midwest spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “He’s a member of the House Intelligence Committee, but he’s proven he doesn’t know how to handle very sensitive information.”
Former House Speaker Craig DeRoche, a Novi Republican who recently endorsed Hoekstra, dismisses the Democrats’ criticism as off-base and instead plays up the congressman’s national security gravitas.
“The guy isn’t new to the intelligence community,” DeRoche notes. “He has high-level security clearance. He applies his judgment. He knows the rules.”
Hoekstra dubbed it the “twitterversy” on his website and is sanguine about the whole thing (“You get blowback on everything nowadays,” he shrugs).
Then there was this message in June after the Iranian green revolution that brought Hoekstra’s tweeting full circle: “Iranian twitter activity similar to what we did in House last year when Republicans were shut down in the House.”
That gave birth to a sardonic website that netted national attention, Hoekstraisameme.com, that declares: “To Hoekstra is to whine using grandiose exaggerations and comparisons.” It’s littered with illustrated entries from readers, such as: “Just burnt my Hot Pocket in the microwave. Now I know what Chernobyl was like.”
Although his tweets have fallen off in frequency lately, the congressman says the criticism hasn’t affected his candor.
“No, I don’t think so. I hope not,” Hoekstra says. “My staff gets nervous about it. They like running everything through the cycle of messaging. Make sure your press secretary sees it; make sure your policy person sees it. I try to go through it very, very carefully, just to make sure that if anybody really wants to take a cheap shot that it’s hard for them to do.”
“Doesn’t mean that they don’t try,” he adds.
Conservatism and Compromise
Right now, Pete Hoekstra might be better known in the “twitterverse” than Lansing, as he’s never held state office. But all the attention looks to have raised his profile in the crowded six-way GOP gubernatorial primary.
He’s made a surprisingly strong showing in the polls and is basically tied with Attorney General Mike Cox, who’s won two statewide elections. The AG’s high name ID and vote-rich Southeast Michigan power base would seem to propel him as the natural frontrunner. But with Cox ensnared in the civil suit over stripper Tamara Greene’s death following disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s alleged Manoogian Mansion party, the squeaky-clean Dutchman could present an appealing alternative.
Hoekstra, 56, projects the persona of a salt-of-the-earth businessman, not a career politician (his staff often calls him “Pete,” bypassing the traditional, buttoned-up formality of “the congressman”). While in Lansing for a campaign swing on a rainy fall day, he frequently leans over to make his point, as if commanding attention in a corporate boardroom. Decked in a crimson power tie and powder blue shirt that uncannily matches his eyes — the same ensemble featured on his campaign website — he looks every inch the casual CEO, down to his graying cropped coif.
He peppers his answers with plenty of references to his time at West Michigan office furniture maker Herman Miller, though he left for Washington almost two decades ago. And the nine-term congressman often uses the collective “we” to describe his personal actions (“We’re concentrating on raising money now”), underscoring that the Hoekstra enterprise is a team effort.
The father of three notes he won’t throw money away on a tony Washington apartment and has slept in his office for more than 16 years, a well-worn story he repeats with ease. (“It’s just a simple leather couch. At night I throw a sleeping bag and a pillow on it. That’s my life in D.C.”)
However, hailing from West Michigan proved problematic for the last two GOP gubernatorial nominees, former Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus and Amway heir Dick DeVos, who were perceived as out of touch. But Hoekstra disagrees that geography is destiny.
“I don’t think it’s an east-west thing. If Republicans from the eastside always won, we’d have Republican senators. We don’t,” he says. “We just haven’t had Republican candidates who have been effective, regardless of whether they’re from the east or the west side. They always kind of draw this insulated little picture of West Michigan. I worked for a company that I’ll put up against any company in Michigan in terms of its international reputation, Herman Miller.”
As ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, he notes he’s met with Muammar Gaddafi three times, as well as the late Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat, Bashar Assad in Syria and Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. A native of Groningen, Netherlands, Hoekstra has stepped foot on six continents.
“In terms of having a macro perspective and having a world perspective much bigger than good old West Michigan,” he adds pointedly, “I think I’ve got an international perspective that’s as big as anyone in the field, if not bigger.”
Although he’s a conservative Republican, Hoekstra stresses his practicality, playing up his ability to compromise and his ties to labor, honed while heading Congress’ investigation of the Teamsters in the 1990s. The Hollander refused to sign a no-tax pledge and declared he wouldn’t vote for a ballot initiative on Right to Work, seen as the holy grail by business groups, a powerful Republican constituency.
Even DeRoche, the ultimate partisan, describes him as “a different kind of Republican in how he thinks about issues, gathers information. He doesn’t just recite talking points from what he read in a conservative magazine. He’s a breath of fresh air.”
Hoekstra appears to be running a campaign in the mold of the two men who won the New Jersey and Virginia governorships this fall — Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell, respectively — who shied away from their right-wing pedigrees and ran on almost exclusively economic platforms.
There’s fertile ground in Michigan, home of the nation’s highest unemployment rate, with more than 600,000 jobs lost on the watch of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. As the GOP continues to struggle against its negative image (only one in five people now identifies as a Republican, according to Pew Research), party elders like former Gov. John Engler are urging candidates to go all economics, all the time.
DeRoche acknowledges that the GOP primary electorate isn’t looking for someone who crosses party lines, but he stresses that Hoekstra “won’t abandon principles.”
“Pete is clearly comfortable in his Republican skin and considers himself a conservative,” he says.
Hoekstra is mindful of the base, having worked to become the go-to guy for Fox News shows like “Hannity” and “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren” (“Yeah, we do all right,” he grins of his ubiquitous presence on the right-leaning network). The 2nd District congressman also made sure to show at a September fundraiser in Jackson for former U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton). The breakfast was headlined by U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who became a conservative icon for shouting “You lie!” in the middle of President Obama’s health care address to Congress.
And Hoekstra sends out a few dog whistles to evangelicals, like his parents’ rights constitutional amendment that’s attracted 125 sponsors. Written in response to the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, the measure states that parents have the responsibility and the authority to direct the upbringing of their kids. The state can step in for cases of abuse and neglect, but “no international treaty can intervene,” Hoekstra notes.
“It’s important because parents’ rights are slowly being eroded in Washington, D.C. by the legislative process, the judicial process,” he adds.
Aside from spending his first three years in the Netherlands, Hoekstra has never lived outside Michigan, and says he never wanted to.
He’s been back there about 15 times, noting that the Dutch are strong partners in the War on Terror. But Hoekstra doesn’t remember his formative years there, although he can speak the language after being immersed for a couple weeks (“The brain’s an amazing thing,” he grins).
The Hoekstras were seeking opportunity for their three kids (“They bought into the American dream,” Pete says) and planned to move to Cleveland thanks to a sponsor family, which was required in the ’50s. That fell through at the last minute, but the Hoekstras found other sponsors in Grand Rapids, who put them up in a house in nearby Holland.
“So that’s the difference between being a Buckeye and a Wolverine,” he quips.
After meeting his future wife, Diane Johnson, at Holland Christian High School, Hoekstra stayed close to home, obtaining a B.A. in political science at Hope College in 1975. The couple has now been married 34 years and has three children: Erin, 27, who works at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington; Allison, 24, who’s married and lives in Holland; and Bryan, 21, a senior at Calvin College.
Hoekstra went on to become a Wolverine, earning an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan in 1977. He then began his 15-year career at Herman Miller, stepping down as vice president of marketing when he won his congressional seat in 1992. Hoekstra still beams with pride about the company, interestingly stressing its commitment to diversity.
“It’s just a very unique company. That’s where I fine-tuned my business skills, my management skills,” he says. “Herman Miller is known around the world for the products that it makes, for the way that it does its business, manages its business. It’s consistently recognized as one of the best-managed companies, recognized for participated management, recognized as one of the best places for women to work, and recognized, I think more recently, as one of the best companies for its outreach to the gay community.”
Hoekstra was never supposed to serve in Congress.
He did the unthinkable, toppling Guy Vander Jagt, chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC). But Hoekstra, then 40, thought the silver-tongued 13-term congressman had become a creature of Congress and lost touch with his district.
“I was frustrated with what was going on in Washington,” he says. “I thought that someone with my background — I majored in political science when I was in college — as someone coming into politics with a good, solid business background, some orientation to politics, that I could go to Washington and make a difference.”
Hoekstra sums up his first political campaign as “short, sweet and inexpensive.” The novice spent $50,000 over 12 weeks and not-so-subtly hit on his 21-year age difference with the incumbent. Hoekstra tooled around in a 1965 Rambler (“Built the same year Vander Jagt was elected the first time,” he notes) and embarked on a bike tour of the district.
“What I wanted to demonstrate was that I was going to bring a new sense of energy, vibrancy and grassroots politics to the office,” he says. “The bike kind of sent out the signal that, hey, this guy’s young, he’s energetic and the bicycle says, ‘This guy’s local.’ It’s a big district. It’s 200 miles long and anywhere from 60 to 90 miles wide if you include the lake, and so it was just something at that time that kind of connected with people. It was a memorable image.”
Hoekstra has made it a biennial campaign tradition. For his gubernatorial quest, he’s vowed to pedal 1,000 miles and work 100 jobs. So far, he’s racked up 100 miles and five jobs — picking asparagus, picking cherries, sewing, doing sewer reconstruction in Detroit and unloading bags at Shepler’s Ferry on Mackinac Island — but he says the plan is to go full throttle in the spring.
Another hopeful, Sen. Tom George (R-Kalamazoo), did his own bike tour this summer, to which Hoekstra responds, “Imitation is a great form of flattery.”
“I kind of think the bike thing is mine,” he adds. “It doesn’t mean other people can’t use it. But it’s clearly part of my brand.”
Hoekstra describes that first election night as “kind of a magic moment, where everything comes together.”
“Now, whenever you go to talk to people, they say, ‘I was with you that first year,’” he laughs heartily. “It’s amazing; it’s amazing I only got 47 percent of the vote.”
Hoekstra’s congressional class preceded the storied one of the ’94 Republican Revolution. After knocking out a member of the old leadership team (Vander Jagt stood to become chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee), Hoekstra became one of soon-to-be Speaker Newt Gingrich’s top lieutenants.
Even today, he displays the deference, even awe of a young congressman to party leadership in describing how he came to resolve the dispute over the 1996 Teamsters election between James Hoffa Jr. and Ron Carey. House Judiciary Chair Henry Hyde told the Holland Republican to take a meeting with Hoffa (“I was surprised that Henry knew who I was,” Hoekstra offers). Afterward, Gingrich called to tell him he would lead a national press conference announcing an investigation into fraud and corruption.
“When Newt’s telling you to go do something, you went out and did it,” Hoekstra recalls.
He and Gingrich were on the same page that Republicans were “not going to use this as an excuse to bash all unions.” In the end, it helped Hoekstra build up trust with labor, especially Hoffa, the eventual winner. Unlike other Republicans, he’s happy to sit down with the unions.
“They knew that they could come in, that we could sit down and have a discussion and that sometimes we could find agreement and sometimes there would be disagreement,” he says.
He’s worked with unions on federal prison industries and No Child Left Behind, which he sees as a huge incursion into education by the federal government that’s “worked out miserably.” And the congressman is open to tweaking Proposal A. His record on trade is mixed, having voted for NAFTA, but no on trade relations with China and fast-track negotiating authority, which gives the president more power over agreements.
That’s certainly given Hoekstra an advantage over his fellow GOP hopefuls, but it also might make endorsements competitive even against the consummate union guy, Democratic frontrunner Lt. Gov. John Cherry.
“What I will say is that I won’t concede the union vote to any Democrat,” Hoekstra says.
November 7, 2006, marked the end of an era. After 12 years of Republican rule, the Democrats took back both houses of Congress.
“It’s a whole lot more fun being in the majority,” Hoekstra acknowledges ruefully.
But he says that didn’t influence his decision to run for governor, although he might have stuck it out for another term or two. He never saw himself staying as long as Vander Jagt; in fact, he took (and broke) a 12-year term-limit pledge.
Hoekstra doesn’t make excuses and admits he was wrong (“You find out that term limits aren’t working the way people intended them to”). He also stresses that the GOP instituted a rule that committee chairs could only serve for six years, which he calls a “better system” of term limits.
That also means Hoekstra’s time as ranking member on Intelligence Committee is up in 2010.
He’s conscious of the fact that he’s best known as an expert on international affairs — something of little concern to voters picking their next governor. So he stresses that his initial focus in Congress was education, labor and budget. It was only after losing his bid for Education Committee chair in 2000 that he landed on Intel.
“And then 9/11 happens,” Hoekstra says. “The rest is history…The one thing you can say is at least I was a quick study.”
Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer has been quick to link the congressman to former President George W. Bush, whose popularity sank as the Iraq war’s death toll soared.
Hoekstra shakes it off with an effective jab. “I’m a lot less tied to George W. Bush than John Cherry is to Jennifer Granholm.”
Still, his stances on terrorism and foreign affairs continue to irk Democrats nationally, from his 2006 press conference trumpeting that the weapons of mass destruction had been unearthed in Iraq to his opposition to Guantanamo Bay prisoners being transferred to the mothballed Standish prison. Hoekstra maintains that Obama hasn’t given “us a compelling reason to do it.”
Standish City Manager Michael Moran met with Hoekstra three months ago (“We agreed to disagree,” he says), but notes that U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Menominee) — who represents Standish — is in favor. Losing the prison means a 25-percent slice to the city’s $4-million water and sewer budget, Moran notes, and there already have been big cuts and layoffs.
“The majority of the community doesn’t have a problem with them coming here,” Moran says gruffly. “It’s a secure prison. We’ve taken care of worse people in our maximum security prison…There’s a small, vocal group, not only Congressman Hoekstra, but others outside the community who have stirred things up.”
This week, Hoekstra revealed that alleged Fort Hood killer Nidal Hasan is believed to have corresponded via e-mail with a radical cleric in Yemen, something liberals again decried as classified information. Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly derided the Republican as “a world-class buffoon,” while The Nation’s Christopher Hayes went with “epic grandstander.”
En route to Washington for a November 15 “Face the Nation” appearance on Fort Hood, Hoekstra gets uncharacteristically heated about the recent criticism.
“The left is saying Hoekstra released classified information,” he says. “I was never even briefed yet; I hadn’t received a stitch of classified information on Fort Hood. It’s typical. They’ve done this to me before. The bottom line is that this isn’t about Pete Hoekstra. This is about 13 Americans who were brutally murdered at Fort Hood.”
Hoekstra clocked in third in the influential Mackinac Island GOP straw poll after Labor Day, after Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder and Attorney General Cox. But the congressman is unfazed (perhaps because of widespread tales of candidates buying tickets for supporters). “I thought it went great,” he offers.
Another reason for optimism could be the Island fundraiser that former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney held for him. Hoekstra served as a foreign policy adviser on the Michigan native’s 2008 campaign, making four or five trips out to Iowa for the caucuses, especially the Northwest region (“Where all the Dutch are,” he chuckles).
“Mitt’s a good friend. Mitt’s very much a quality guy,” Hoekstra enthuses. “When you drive through the snow in Iowa in January together, or December, in the Mittmobile, you build a certain kind of friendship.”
DeRoche “got to see (Hoekstra) in action for the first time” as a fellow Romney backer. He recalls being on the 20-year-old Romney RV for swings through Lansing and Grand Rapids, as Hoekstra plotted campaign strategy on a rickety, fold-out table. And the former speaker credits him for helping Romney carry West Michigan, and thus the state in the ’08 primary.
“What I’ve learned is that Pete is the same every day, on every issue,” DeRoche says. “He doesn’t put on a different face with different folks, supporters, those who disagree with him, so-called influential people, people he meets on the sidewalk. He has just as much time for everybody.”
If the old Romney coalition comes together, Hoekstra could have the magic formula to wrapping up the nomination — and perhaps the general election. But he knows that after a decade-long recession and budget disasters, there’s a tough job ahead if he and Diane do end up moving into the governor’s mansion.
But that’s where the former executive says he would draw on his years at Herman Miller (“I wouldn’t micromanage, but I would be very much involved in leadership,” he vows). And Hoekstra also goes back to congressional experience, noting negotiations on intelligence reform with U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). “We were friends,” he notes. “We trusted each other and looked for common ground.”
For a guy who never moved to Washington, Pete Hoekstra sounds a little like the consummate insider. But he stresses that Lansing is a world away from the high-rolling D.C. scene.
How does he know?
“Diane is OK moving there,” he grins.
Susan J. Demas, a regular columnist and writer for Dome, is 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.